Foreign Policy Blogs

How Well Is Afghanistan Going?

Two of my FPA blogger colleagues offer differing assessments of the war in Afghanistan.  In the optimistic camp is Gail Harris of the FPA U.S. Defense blog. She participated in several Bloggers Roundtables sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department and blogged about it in three parts (here, here, and here).  She notes that NATO is meeting its training goals.  The goal for this year is to have 171,600 trained members of the Afghanistan National Army, they now already have 159,363.  Their goal for retention is between 60 and 70%, retention for the past year was 69%.  Additionally, NATO has been training Afghans to do the training.  And though portions of the country remain outside the control of the central government, Afghan security forces have secured Kabul on their own and provided all the security for the national election.  Thus, Gail Harris advocates for not bringing too many troops home in July:

…[T]he situation in Afghanistan can still go wrong if the coalition leaves too soon.  I believe the views that should carry the most weight are the current people running the war.  They’ve reversed the situation in Iraq when all was considered lost and have stopped the momentum of the Taliban when many thought that situation was also lost.

Gail’s views contrast sharply with those of Ali Riazi of the new FPA Game Theory and Foreign Policy blog.  He writes:

The US war effort in Afghanistan is lacking true civilian leadership, and the existing leadership (military) is avoiding accountability through obfuscation, self-aggrandizement,  and attempts to overly intellectualize the conflict.


Likewise, the complexity of the conflict is continually and uncouthly underplayed in an attempt to provide for hope in a hopeless war that ignores severe policy shortcomings. Is self-aggrandizement part of the problem military leaders are displaying in Afghanistan?

So while Gail notes the progress made and suggests that civilians should defer to the military’s judgment, Ali calls the war “hopeless” and criticizes the civilian leadership for deferring too much to the military.

The debate is particularly important now, as President Obama is currently deciding on the nature of next month’s troop withdrawal.  Faheem Haider of FPA Afghanistan posted about this debate earlier in the week.  As Faheem notes, the two mainstream sides of the debate are epitomized by Robert Gates (who has cautions against removing too many troops) and Nancy Pelosi (who wants a more substantial drawdown).

So what do we make of this?

As I wrote last year for the Euro-Atlantic Center, the NATO strategy is to leave Afghanistan in a state in which the Kabul government can effectively fight and ultimately win its civil war.  The two factors that will most effectively indicate how this might pan out are the state of the Afghan security forces and the state of the Afghan economy.  I was pessimistic last year, I remain so today.  Though, as Gail harris notes, NATO is meeting its training goals, Afghanistan’s economic situation does not invite optimism.  One can turn to the recent Senate Foreign Relations report for specifics.  (It’s downloadable here and is worth a read.)  The report warns that U.S. aid to Afghanistan is not being spent in a way that facilitates Afghan stability.  I’ll quote the report at length:

According to the World Bank, an estimated 97 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP is derived from spending related to the international military and donor community presence.  A precipitous withdrawal of international support, in the absence of reliable domestic revenue and a functioning marketbased economy, could trigger a major economic recession.  USAID and the State Department recognize these challenges and their current planning is ‘‘anticipating both the impact of the U.S. troop withdrawal on the Afghan economy, and on U.S. civilian resources.’’

At present, donors are picking up most of the costs of running the Afghan Government. Scott Guggenheim, formerly with the World Bank, has noted that domestic revenues only cover one-fifth of public spending and two-thirds of public spending is off-budget, which means that donors pay for most development services.

Achieving fiscal sustainability will require the Afghan Government to (1) substitute donor grants for the operating and development budget; (2) assume external budget obligations on the operating budget; (3) pay for a share of technical assistance for core civil service functions; (4) fund the Kabul process; and (5) invest in operations and maintenance for acquired assets. Transition planning should find the right balance between avoiding a sudden dropoff in aid, which could trigger a major economic recession, and a long-term phaseout from current donor levels.

These are daunting tasks. Analysts estimate that it could cost between $6 and $8 billion a year alone to sustain the Afghan National Security Forces, depending on the final size of the force.  Without significant domestic revenue generation, the Afghan state will not be self-sufficient for decades and donors, particularly the United States, will have to bear the costs. With the right planning, Afghanistan may be able to generate substantial revenues from its sizeable mineral deposits in the future, but we do not see any signs of near-term revenue generation from its mineral wealth.

These signs could point to the United States reliving the experience of the Soviets.  After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the Afghan security forces were able to successfully battle insurgents.  But the Kabul government depended on the financial and political support of the Soviet Union, and when that ceased in 1992, the Kabul government fell.  See this report from the U.S. Government’s Federal Research Division, which states:

With the failure of the communist hardliners to take over the Soviet government in August 1991, Najibullah’s [then the president of Afghanistan]  supporters in the Soviet Army lost their power to dictate Afghan policy.  The effect was immediate.  On September 13, the Soviet government, now dominated by Boris Yeltsin, agreed with the United States on a mutual cutoff of military aid to both sides in the Afghan civil war.  It was to begin on January 1, 1992… Having been cut adrift both materially and politically, Najibullah’s faction torn government began to fall apart.

If Afghanistan does not achieve fiscal sustainability, the same thing could happen again.  And the other level, of course, involves the question of why the propagation of the current Kabul government serves U.S. security interests.  The assumption is that the Taliban, if victorious in the civil war, will allow their territory to be used as an al Qaeda safe haven, as they did through 2001.  But, as Stephen Walt has argued, this assumption may be incorrect.  These are the factors one should consider when determining how many troops, and which troops, to bring home next month to best serve U.S. national security interests.